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Mindful : June 2016
B ozzie and Judy Edwards live in the hilly North Mississippi countryside, in a home that fills with grandchildren on Sundays after church. He’s an Iraq War vet- eran who retired after 29 years with the Army National Guard. She works full-time as her husband’s caregiver. The Calhoun County of their childhood was quieter than much of Mississippi, where bombings and assassinations pricked the nation’s conscience during the civil-rights movement. White supremacy, nonetheless, was rigidly enforced. In 1961 the school superin- tendent reassured a state investigator that no The Edwardses, themselves African Ameri- can, carry searing memories from their youths. Bozzie, who is 66, recalls long waits at a dairy- bar takeout window—he wasn’t allowed inside— while the white kids got served first at their tables. He recalls walking home from town with his brother when a white driver swerved in their direction; they tumbled into a ditch as the gravel flew over their heads. He recalls his father—“so mean and so respected”—sleeping with a loaded rifle after offending a white man inside a store. “Back in those days, when they got you, they’d come at night,” he says. Judy, at 58, is young enough to remember desegregation, and the all-white private acad- emy that sprung up in its wake. One morning, after a TV show aired about slavery, some white classmates came in imitating the slavemasters, flinging the N-word like a blade. “I’m not going to lie to you—we took care of them,” she says. “ We took a few in the bathroom.” Twenty miles away and across the color line, Dudley Davis lives with his own hurtful memories. The retired teacher and farmer, now 77, grew up with a father who wasn’t a hardcore racist but “feared what other people would do to him” if he departed from Mississippi’s racial norms. When Davis was in his 30s, he warmly greeted an African-American friend with a handshake. His father later scolded him for touching the man’s skin. “I don’t want to see you doing that again,” Davis remembers him saying. “Somebody will burn our house down.” Stories like these often stay buried in the African-American teachers belonged to the NAACP and that any “agitator” among the faculty would be fired. Two years later, county officials insisted that “Negros simply took no interest in paying their poll taxes”—and that’s why, out of roughly 1,700 African-American adults, only six or seven had qualified to vote. The earliest steps toward legal equality—token school desegregation and black voter-regis- tration efforts—were met with cross-burnings and death threats. One of the first black teens to attend a previously all-white high school transferred out after 10 shots were fired into his home. bearers’ hearts. Maybe they get shared within the confines of a household, or within a tight- knit single-race community. In a place like Calhoun County, where social—if not legal—seg- regation persists, they certainly don’t get told to strangers of other races. That is, not until now. In 2013, a group of black, white, and Latino Calhoun County residents—originally convened by a local nun—invited the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to help facilitate an ongoing dialog ue about race. The Winter Institute—named for a former governor known as a progressive reformer— runs a program called the Welcome Table, which it brings to communities with histories of distrust. At the program’s core are monthly meetings where trained facilitators help partici- pants tell and listen to personal stories. One goal of these conversations is to foster relationships across race lines—ties that later translate into civic activities aimed at promoting racial justice. Storytelling, say those who study and work in race relations, has a particular power to help bridge longstanding fault lines. “People take action to dismantle racism when they care about the people whom they see as being disadvan- taged by those systems,” says psychologist Bev- erly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Atlanta’s Spelman College. “In my experience, this is most likely to happen when people have ongoing connections to one another, so that there’s an opportunity for relationships to deepen.” Previous page: In Calhoun County, Mississippi, where social segregation persists, Welcome Table members have grown more comfortable sharing their histories. From left: Judy Edwards, Robert Stewart, Nida Pittman, Dudley Davis, Bozzie Edwards, Donna Cole. 56 mindful June 2016 community